Casting directors are the stars in Casting By
A documentary by Tom Donahue. Unrated. Opens Friday, October 25, at the Cinematheque
Over the years, audiences have learned much about how movies are put together and sold, from storyboarding to box-office returns. Big stars have always triggered expensive productions, of course, but by what mysterious process have all those other faces appeared alongside Paul Newman or Tom Hanks?
In Hollywood’s studio era, casting directors did, essentially, clerical duty, keeping head shots of contract players updated for directors to peruse. These keepers of loose-leaf binders were viewed as high-level secretaries, and that attitude persisted into the 1950s, when talent went freelance. Top casting agents typically had extensive knowledge of up-and-coming theatre talent on both coasts, and that’s how youngsters like Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Natalie Wood got key roles.
To those names, add Warren Beatty, Danny Glover, Robert Duvall, Bette Midler, Robert Redford—among many more—who got their big breaks from Marion Dougherty, and they say so in Tom Donahue’s entertaining and well-assembled doc. The unexpected focus on Dougherty is probably fitting, since she had a hand in everything from studio films to independent cinema and the talent-grabbing TV dramas of the ’60s. She brought Jon Voight to Midnight Cowboy, for example, while her L.A. counterpart, Lynn Stalmaster, got Mike Nichols to look at Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate.
With those successes came a push to give casting directors some Oscar attention, but the job title was bitterly resisted by film directors, and still is, according to a snotty Taylor Hackford, currently heading the Directors Guild of America. Dougherty coined the term casting by, which still dominates, and she also established a homey New York environment in which younger actors could be seen at their best. Her staff was exclusively female, and her alumni include agents like Juliet Taylor, who subsequently cast every Woody Allen movie from Annie Hall on (plus Taxi Driver, Schindler’s List, and dozens more). The famously nonconfrontational Allen recalls “hiding in the corner at casting sessions, waiting for it to be over. I like to leave it to the experts.”